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22 Jul 2022

A fan of fashion

Written by Wu Yunong, PhD student, University of Glasgow
A silk fan with bone sticks decorated with patterns of pastel-coloured flowers in blue, yellow and pink, and a lady in a pink dress at the centre.
Fabric, designs and the meaning of fans vary across cultures and centuries
As part of a Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities (SGSAH) doctoral internship Beyond Beckford, Wu Yunong, a PhD student from the University of Glasgow and Thalia Ostendorf, a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews, are carrying out research at Brodick Castle. Yunong tells us more about some of their discoveries.

Surviving evidence of pictorial records and physical objects indicates the use of fans in Egypt since ancient times, 15th century BCE. Long fans were commonly depicted in Egyptian tomb paintings, symbolising sacred power and the divine presence of the pharaoh. Similarly, ceremonial fans were used in ancient Chinese imperial court to highlight the monarch’s authority. Within the secular sphere, hand fans for cooling purposes originated in Japan around the 7th century, with two forms of folding fan (Ogi) and flat fan (Uchiwa) being created. The use of fans soon affected nearby countries of China and Korea, before the fashion of folding fans swept across Europe in the 15th century.

While preparing for the new display at Brodick Castle, we found an ivory folding fan in the Duchess’ boudoir, bearing significant Chinese artistic features. What is interesting about this fan lies not only beneath the material of carved ivory made in one culture and appreciated by another, but also in the changing meaning and target users of handheld fans within constant cultural exchanges.

An ivory fan with tiny detailing on each individual leaf, propped up in a clear holder.
Ivory brisé fan, exported from China | Brodick Castle collection

A true indication of luxury and status, the value of ivory was widely acknowledged in the ancient world. The use of elephant tusks in China is believed to date back to the Neolithic period, whereas ivory products were discovered in tombs of the Shang dynasty (1600–1046 BCE). In the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BCE), the rules of etiquette required gentlemen to use ivory combs for dried hair (and another comb of white-grained wood for wet hair), and Princes of State to have ivory hu (a flat sceptre of memorandum tablet) at court to record notes and instructions, and also to shield their mouths when speaking to the emperor. Ivory was ranked second in the hierarchy of precious materials, after jade which was reserved exclusively for the emperors.

Imperial ivory carving studio was established in Beijing during the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) to provide a stable supply of ivory items to the imperial court. But in the Qing dynasty (1644–1911/12), non-imperial carved ivory was also gifted to the court as a local tribute from Guangdong (Canton), a coastal province in South China. Here it was not the material of ivory but rather the superfine carving technique conducted by outstanding Guangdong craftspeople that enchanted the emperors, especially Emperor Qianlong (1736–95).

The fan we are talking about is a brisé fan. Loosely translated as ‘broken’ from French, this term was coined to describe a unique type of folding fan comprising wider, carved sticks that overlap one another. The sticks are decorative enough to form a collectible fan that no leaf is needed. Unlike folding fans with leaves of painting or calligraphy that was most popular in Chinese culture, especially among the male-dominated literati group, the brisé fan was largely produced for overseas markets in Guangdong in the 18th–19th centuries. Some fans were even customised with features such as initials in the shield (as below).

A white ivory fan against a dark grey background, decorated with a shield with initials in looping cursive at its centre.
Ivory brisé fan for American market, exported from China, c. 1800–10 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, Gift of Mrs Morgan Grinnell, 1932

In 18th century Europe, handheld fans were primarily used by women as a fashionable accessory for various occasions. A secret language of the fan was soon developed in the Victorian period as part of expression and body gestures for women to communicate with others. This prevalent social code was referred to in Oscar Wilde’s famous play Lady Windermere's Fan. But honestly speaking, it was more of a sales promotion when first invented!

Fans became closely linked to women and were therefore commonly made of soft and ‘feminine’ materials such as fabric (silk, satin, lace, etc.) and feathers. Subject matters on the fan leaf were affected, too, with love themes and pastoral landscape being popular (as in the fan pictured below centre). Other than that, opulent non-native materials such as tortoiseshell, peacock and ostrich feather were also adopted in Victorian fans.

As an export commodity, this ivory fan does not seem to have obvious gender implications for the target users. The exquisite carving of ivory and its overall fragility make it a collectible rather than a practical item.

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